"A defence of detective stories" by G.K. Chesterton
Review Round-up: Detectives, Aliens and a Succubus

The Siren and the Sword by Cecilia Tan

The Siren and the SwordThe Siren and the Sword (2014) is about Kyle.

Hi, Kyle!

Kyle is an orphan, living with a distant family member who hates him. Through a series of seemingly miraculous events, he learns he's actually a wizard - from a highly respected magical family. He's accepted into a magical university that's divided into four houses. He learns he's (probably) the Chosen One of an ancient prophesy. He makes friends. He fights evil. Etc.

So, yes, this is rather blatantly inspired by Harry Potter, and one of the (genuinely) best parts of The Siren and the Sword is the afterword in which Cecilia Tan discusses her influences, and how she deliberately set out to adapt them in ways that interested her. 

And, in a way, Siren - the first of the 'Magic University' series - is a distinct refinement of its, uh, predecessor. Siren is, as the series title might suggest, wholly about being a magic student. The overall plot is, accordingly, completely tangential; this is a book about late night pizza, course selection, cramming for finals and hooking up. It is a very niche area of world-building, but given the timeless appeal of wizarding school stories, a popular one. And it is fun - school stories give a method of infodumping that's inherently empathetic, much more so than, say, your typical 'wise old man exposits' format. 

As far as wizarding stories go, on spectrum of traditional to revisionist (say, Harry Potter <---> The Magicians), The Siren and the Sword sits happily in the middle. It is very much for readers that want to watch young wizards deal with 'real' problems (e.g. finals, sex), but without actually being troubled by the least bit of realism. Gritty issues never arise, or, when they are, they're casually waved off. Kyle's family is disappointed? Send them a photo. Sex magic in the 21st century? Wizards are immune to STDs! Etc. etc. This is not a book that looks for the challenges inherent in modern magical education, but one that's whole-heartedly about embracing the fun.

It is, however, definitely worth noting that Siren is chock full of explicit sex. Happy sex (again, not The Magicians!), but certainly, um, detailed. Meaning it has the character-focused, issue-laden structure of a YA book, the happy go-lucky resolution and ephemeral plotting of a children's book, and the salacious detail of adult fiction. I would call the audience for this sort of mash-up 'niche', but I'd be kidding myself - this is genre dynamite.

I'm sure there's plenty to be investigated as to how Siren relates to a post-Harry Potter world, and as with fan fiction, this prompts really fascinating conversations about around who this is serving, why it exists and what audience needs it fulfils. The author addresses many of them in her afterword, and I think that's one of many good prompts. There's a market - and cultural(?) - need for sexually explicit, slightly (if progressively) genderqueer, Ivy-based Harry Potter stories. Which, again, works for me - there's good stuff in here, and what Harry Potter did was (re)establish a formula for fantasy-based escapism that can be applied and reapplied for everyone. Which is pretty awesome.

But that's all covered off elsewhere, and well, or for me, Siren is perhaps more interesting as an example of university fiction sub-genre - something taken in the mode of Class or The Rules of Attraction. And a (quintessentially?) American university story is a very different genre to the (quintessentially?) British school story. For one: the age. A British school story is about leaving home and fitting in at the first great moment of change - adolescence. An American university story takes place at the next milestone - discovering adulthood. The fundamental conceit of leaving home for the first time is still there, but with the school story it is about rebellion, conformity and discovery within a secure structure. For the university structure, it is about independence. (Arguably the remote, cryptic Dumbledore was a crappy teacher for a 12 year old, but he's perfect as a University professor.)

What college (in the American sense of the word) stories often address is that sense, exacerbated by every other form of media, including our own parents' stories, that university is the defining moment of our life. That those are literally the years that shape you, and, frankly, everything after that is a sort of lingering denouement. Some books in the genre get it right - Class isn't the best of its, uh, ilk, but at least it is tongue in cheek enough to dispel its characters' deadly earnestness. The Rule of Four (which I pick on a lot, but, come on...) is hilariously bad, with a denouement so awful - "uh, then we all grew up? and died?" - that it makes Daniel Radcliffe's Old Personal Make-up look graceful by comparison. Whereas, on the other end of the spectrum, The Rules of Attraction and The Secret History are both predicated on the notion of universities as liminal, impossible spaces; two books with characters that adamantly refuse to consider the future.

One of the reasons the genre is so compelling is because we all read it differently by age. As a high schooler, The Secret History was exactly as its title implied: a whispered unveiling of the mysteries yet to come. Once at university, I gained a new perspective  - even if my school was very much not like the one Tartt described, I could still empathise and understand with the archetypes she created. The characters reflected aspects of the bizarre world around me. And as an independent adult, post-graduation, The Secret History becomes a tragedy. These are characters that need a hug and some reassurance that life does not, in fact, end at graduation. And they still have many, many years to figure out who they are. The Secret History embraces this subjective reading, many others are shamed by it.

The Siren and the Sword adds a new spin to this genre by mixing in a bit of magic - more specifically, predestination. There are two prophesies at work in the book. The first is a greater, Potteresque rhyme that isn't deciphered in this volume, but is rather clearly about Kyle and the Quest He Will Do. We can probably assume that it is fulfilled over the course of the series and before (if not on) graduation. The second is a dream had by Kyle's girlfriend. As a child, she had a vision of a masked ball as a child, and therefore knew (magic!) that she would find her true love at a masquerade. Kyle, crushing hard, then stages a masked ball in the hopes of wooing her. Spoiler: it works, but twist!

So here we have, in both cases (presumably), actual objective proof that your university years are the most important years of your life. (As well as the great tragedy that someone's childhood dream of finding their true love at masked ball is fulfilled by a dorm party, but, hey.) In epic fantasy or post-apocalyptic dystopian romance, this would fly. In the real world, it somehow comes off as bit awkward. Do we want our lives to be settled before we can even legally rent a car? For readers younger than university age, I can see that time dilates towards infinity and this still retains its optimism. For those beyond it, it feels, well - wistful. Curiously, The Magicians and its sequels are is almost entirely devoted to this premise. There's something addictive and reassuring about knowing you have a destiny. And something incredibly painful about life after it has been fulfilled. Siren, however, eschews this level of thematic wrestling. The prophesies, like everything else, are meant to be enjoyed at face value. 

Which, I suppose, leads us full circle. The Siren and the Sword is a particularly specific sort of escapism; one that merrily cherry-picks the best parts of many genres. I don't mean to fall into the trap of reviewing it for what it isn't, because what it is is a great deal of fun. Siren has wizard school and sex and wizard classes and wizard sex and chosen ones and sex and post-sex pizza and all those good things. It doesn't have a lot in the way of plot, drama or conflict, but this, ultimately, is a book relentlessly focused on the story elements that make us happy, and, frankly, conflict would get in the way. If you're looking for a story of wizard school (and you're not a kid): read it - Siren adds both to the genre and, clearly, to the discussion around it. This isn't a book for everyone, but nor does it pretend to be. And I suspect those for whom it is for appreciate it very, very much. I did.